A few weeks ago the San Francisco Giants broke my wife’s heart. They chose not to offer her favorite player, Brian Wilson, a contract for at least $6.8 million, which is the minimum allowed by the Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement based on Wilson’s previous service. The Giants, openly concerned about their closer’s ability to recover from his second Tommy John surgery, preferred to offer a contract with a lower guaranteed salary and greater performance incentives. Wilson, with a mixture of anger and self-confidence, chose to become a free agent and seek a better contract with a new team. He could come back to the Giants if he doesn’t get what he wants, but for now the Beard has officially departed San Francisco.
He may regret his decision. No player in recent memory has appreciated his fame more or been better suited to exploit it. While most players wisely adopt the bland interview style demonstrated by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, Wilson has had the ability to speak his mind to the cameras in a manner that entertains but usually doesn’t offend. On this he deserves credit for his intelligence and essentially good nature, but he has also benefited from playing in San Francisco, a city that encourages idiosyncrasies in its heroes. He may get his contract, but if it comes at the price of having to shave his beard (many teams have had strict facial hair policies) and play somewhere like Kansas City, he may wonder whether the additional guaranteed salary is worth it. I wish the best for him, and for his sake as well as baseball’s I hope his elbow heals sufficiently to allow him to return.
To appreciate Wilson as a pitcher, one can start by comparing him to Mariano Rivera, whose career with the Yankees has established him as the greatest closer of his era. Rivera relies almost exclusively on a cut fastball that is indistinguishable from a regular fastball until it darts into a hitter’s hands at the last millisecond and breaks his bat. He throws it with a quiet demeanor and absolute confidence, and his ninth-inning saves generally consist of a half-dozen pitches, three of which are taken for strikes and the remainder dribbled back to the mound for routine outs to first. As we say of many great athletes, Rivera makes it look easy.
Wilson also relies on a cutter, with a regular mid-90s fastball and a slider as secondary pitches, but he walks more hitters due to a tendency to overthrow his pitches—not a desirable trait given the narrow leads the offensively challenged Giants usually hand him to protect. What has separated him from most relievers, though, is an uncanny ability to keep his focus and make his best pitches when situations are most critical. Statistically the results are undeniable: in 2010 he recorded 48 saves with a 1.81 ERA, tying the late Rod Beck for the Giants single-season record, but many of his appearances were adventurous, contributing to the “Torture” theme coined by Giants announcer Duane Kuiper and adopted by fans when characterizing that season. Since 2009 Wilson’s record is similar to Rivera’s, but he has rarely made it look easy.
The game that best characterizes Wilson’s style is Game 6 of the 2010 National League Championship Series, where he preserved a 3-2 victory over the favored Philadelphia Phillies and sent the Giants into the World Series. The contest was a nail-biter from the start. The Giants starter, Jonathan Sanchez, totally lost his composure in the third inning (not unusual for him), and only the heroic efforts of Jeremy Affeldt and several other relievers kept the game tied until Juan Uribe lined a home run to right field in the eighth for a 3-2 lead. In the bottom half of the inning Giants manager Bruce Bochy nearly handed the lead back to Philadelphia, inexplicably putting Tim Lincecum into the game with only one day’s rest from his seven innings in Game 5 (this was before Lincecum’s makeover as a shutdown reliever in the 2012 playoffs and Series). After striking out the first hitter, Lincecum allowed singles to the next two and forced Bochy to put in Wilson to stop the bleeding.
A Wilson appearance is genuine only when it induces heart palpitations. In this case they started with his third pitch when he left a cutter over the plate to Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz hit a line drive to first that on any other occasion would have tied the game, but instead fortune smiled on the Giants as Aubrey Huff caught the ball and tossed it to second to complete a double play. The Giants failed to provide any insurance runs in the top of the ninth, leaving Wilson his usual thin margin of error when he returned to the mound in the bottom half of the inning. He got Ross Gload to ground out to second, but then he missed outside with several fastballs and walked Jimmy Rollins on a 3-2 count. Placido Polanco hit a ground ball that forced out Rollins, but then Wilson walked Chase Utley to bring up Phillies slugger Ryan Howard with runners on first and second.
Thanks to MLB’s recent practice of selling DVD sets of World Series and key playoff games, I have watched the NLCS Game 6 Wilson/Howard at-bat more than any other moment of the 2010 post-season, including the final out of the World Series in Texas. Wilson had an open base if he’d wished to walk or pitch around Howard, but his first pitch, a belt-high fastball swung on and missed, served notice that he was going after Howard to finish the series then and there. Many of the Philadelphia fans, seeing that the season was on the line, clutched their white rally towels and bit them to relieve the tension. Wilson ran up a full count on Howard, keeping it interesting as usual, and then he rose to the occasion with two great pitches. The first was a 96-mph fastball that started inside and tailed over the edge of the plate, an unhittable pitch that Howard just managed to foul off to the backstop. Wilson then threw a cutter that came in over the middle and sank just as it reached the plate. Howard took the pitch, and Buster Posey barely moved his glove to catch it. The umpire hesitated with the call for an excruciating moment, and then he wheeled around and rang up the third strike. “Got him looking!” shouted the announcer, Joe Buck, and the celebration began on the mound while in the background of the camera shot Howard stood at the plate and stared dumbfounded at the umpire, a reminder that for every immortal moment of victory there is also one of defeat.
This was Wilson at his finest, and regardless of what happens in the future it will be the memory I will always retain first of him. Any fan of the Giants or of baseball should do the same, and Wilson should never be allowed to pay for a meal or a drink in San Francisco again.